Atheist saints?

There are people who declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics and at the same time show an extraordinary moral stature, to such an extent that they become a model for believers, which is a challenge and at the same time a disturbing question for those of us who confess to be believers. Albert Camus reflected such people in his novel The Plague. The French Nobel Prize winner offers a moving dialogue between a believer and an atheist:

  • In short,” said Tarrou simply, “what interests me is to know how one becomes a saint.
  • But you don’t believe in God,” answered Rieux.
  • Can one be a saint without God? That is the only concrete problem I admit at present.

This short text puts before us the question of whether it is possible to be a saint without expressly declaring oneself to be a believer. Let us not reduce it to a theoretical theorem. Let us see how this concerns the facts of everyday life.

Go to a hospital. Go into a ward with five patients suffering from the same ailment. You will probably find three of them distressed by their own illness. One is resigned to it. Another, serene and perhaps radiant. How is this possible? Or ask yourself why, with the same salary, two office workers, one lives in peace and quiet, devoted to his family and neighbours, and the other is breathless with anguish. Why does this happen?

What these examples reveal is that holiness is indeed within the reach of everyone. It is not a romantic dream. And it is home-made. How is it made? Everyone must find his or her own recipe. But some of these “tricks” might help:


– The first and most important is to have some great ideal for the achievement of which failures and difficulties come to matter very little.

– Have faith in the future and trust in life. To take on today’s problems every day instead of suffering in anticipation of the problems that may come tomorrow.

– To make and live the decision to think much more about the good and positive things we have than about the dark areas we will have to cross. To talk about the good; not to stir up the residue of failures.

– To love our neighbours unashamedly and prefer to be fooled once by them rather than to spend our whole lives distrusting everyone (thus being perpetually fooled).

– Devote yourself more to your neighbour’s problems than to your own. This will cure or mitigate both.


But, let us remember that, at the end of the day, all these tricks – and another one that I do not mention – are mere tricks. They only serve to discover that it is God’s grace that makes us saints, whether we are believers or not, whether we are baptised or, as K. Rahner said, whether we are “Christians antheists” or not. Rahner said, we are “anonymous Christians”. Holiness is spread all over the earth… And God knows how to discreetly touch the hearts of everyone, everyone, everyone.

Juan Carlos cmf

(PHOTO: K. Mitch Hodge)


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